Wednesday, 25 September 2013


We had never heard of Vajont.

Palazzo Ca'Bonvicini was hosting a number of exhibitions over the summer. Some of them were Biennale related, some of them weren't, and one of them bore the title Vajont - il Risveglio delle Conscienze ("the awakening of consciences").

The title meant nothing to us, and so we went into the exhibition without any preconceptions at all.

The first room consisted of over a hundred black and white photographs fixed to the walls, together with newspaper clippings. They were difficult to decode at first. Pictures of pretty villages that I thought were probably in the north of the country. Pictures of a dam, of mountains, and of a reservoir.

Then other images. Cars strewn across streets. Wrecked houses. Huge areas of flattened forest, where hardly a tree was left standing. And photographs of coffins. Funerals with dozens upon dozens of coffins.

As we worked our way through the news clippings, things started to become clear.

The Vajont dam, completed in 1959, stood in the valley of the Vajont river, under Monte Toc; perhaps 100km north of Venice.

On the 9th October 1963, a landslide on the slopes of the mountain caused the dam to overflow, with the result that a 200m high wall of water crashed onto the villages of the Piave valley below from a height of nearly half a kilometre.

It's no exaggeration to say that photos of the site, post-impact, resemble images from Hiroshima or Tunguska. Even today, the number of dead remains uncertain; estimated from 1,900 to over 2,500.

The reaction of the government (who owned the electricty supplier, SADE (later ENEL), responsible for the dam's construction) was to attribute the tragedy to a natural disaster. The truth was very different. During construction, the communist newspaper L'Unita had continually warned that three different studies showed that the mountain was unstable and landslides were an ever-present threat. The journalists responsible were denounced by the government as "unpatriotic".

With only days to the landslide, ENEL became aware that the mountain was moving and tried to lower the water level in the reservoir as best they could. It didn't work. After the disaster L'Unita criticised both government and company for ignoring expert advice in the first place, and for not informing the population that a disaster was imminent. The response of the Christian Democrat government was to castigate the newspaper for trying to make political capital from the tragedy.

The survivors were rehoused and the local area rebuilt. The Vajont dam still exists, but the reservoir itself is now empty beyond the natural level of the lake. In this fiftieth anniversary of the disaster, however, there is clearly a feeling that the best interests of local people were ignored for the sake of profit, that the truth behind the disaster was too long in coming to light, and that those responsible were allowed to go free, unpunished.

The second room of the exhibition consists of the simple installation below :

No interpretation, surely, is necessary.

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